5 Dietary Tips for Managing Cortisol Levels

During my thirty-five years of practice, I have seen the remarkable effects that diet can have on reducing stress and regulating cortisol levels. To counteract the maladaptive effects of unhealthy eating habits, I developed The Adaptation Diet to help my patients regain adaptation and robust health.  Dietary changes can be an effective treatment for symptoms such as chronic fatigue, headaches, inflammation, and obesity – when it comes to managing cortisol levels with our diet, the best results can be achieved by following these five simple tips: 


1. Eat well-balanced meals

The first important factor in determining our cortisol levels is food composition. Studies have shown that excess intake of protein and fat (especially the “wrong” fats, such as saturated fats and artificial trans fats) and simple carbohydrates can increase cortisol production significantly in stressful situations. On the other hand, consumption of whole grains (e.g., quinoa, steel-cut oats, brown rice) and omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., salmon, flaxseed, walnuts) can lower the cortisol response. In a study performed by Markus and colleagues (2000), participants who identified as high-stress responders showed lower cortisol responses and less depression when fed a complex-carbohydrate-rich and protein-poor diet, as compared to a typical high-protein diet. (The protein in this study was not defined, but probably contained excessive amounts of red meat, dairy, and eggs – if the protein was mainly fish and vegetable-based, cortisol levels would not have been adversely affected.) 

2. Avoid insulin spikes

The second key to lowering cortisol is maintaining normal blood sugar and avoiding spikes in insulin production that can lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is an increasingly common finding in overweight individuals.  With insulin resistance, the receptors on the cell surface become dysfunctional, leading to the production of more and more insulin. Inflammation is thought to be one cause of this cell-membrane dysfunction. Repeated use of refined sugars and simple carbohydrates can lead to metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, elevated blood fats, and increased risk for heart disease), obesity, and diabetes. 

High-glycemic-index (a measure of how rapidly a food causes a spike in blood sugar) and refined and processed foods such as white flour products (white bread, cookies, pastas, candy, muffins), refined sugar, juices with added sugar, soft drinks (especially with high-fructose corn syrup), most breakfast cereals, and chips are the main culprits in poor control of blood sugar. Using foods that are high in fiber slows digestion of carbohydrates and improves blood-sugar maintenance, preventing blood-sugar spikes, increased insulin production leading to obesity, and hypoglycemia. Beans, brown rice, steel-cut oatmeal, buckwheat, and green vegetables like broccoli and spinach are some of the good sources of fiber. 

Another concern regarding high-glycemic-index meals is the impact they have on appetite and eating behavior. Because low blood sugar often follows the spike in glucose from high-glycemic- index foods, eating behavior is enhanced and people will consume more calories throughout the day after a high-glycemic-index meal. Without adequate protein, ghrelin production will not be suppressed after a meal, another reason for increased caloric intake. This is a setup for weight gain, abdominal obesity, and eventually insulin resistance and all its subsequent health risks. 

3. Choose the right kind of fats

The third key to lowering cortisol is choosing the right kind of fats, particularly foods rich in omega-3 and gamma linoleic omega-6 fats. Salmon, walnuts, almonds, halibut, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, and other sources of these good fats reduce inflammation and prevent excess cortisol production. 

Avoidance of the omega-6 fats found in vegetable oils, including corn oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil, the trans fats found in most processed foods, and the saturated fats in red meat and whole dairy products also lowers inflammation and the demand for cortisol. 

4. Include detoxifying foods in your diet

The fourth key to lowering cortisol is to include foods that are rich in flavonoids, carotenoids, and other phytonutrients that can help to detoxify the body and protect cellular health. Green tea, garlic, onions, red wine, blueberries, broccoli, tomatoes, bell peppers, and kale are just a few of these superfoods that reduce the need for cortisol by controlling cellular damage. 

5. Identify food allergies and food intolerance

The fifth (and perhaps the most overlooked) key in controlling cortisol is identifying food allergies and food intolerance. Reactions from food allergies trigger a dramatic rise in cortisol – in my clinical experience, food allergies are one of the most frequent causes of depression, fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, aches and pains, and digestive problems. The most common food triggers are the most commonly overused foods: wheat, beef, yeast, corn, dairy, sugar, and soy. 

Conclusions about the cortisol response

When I look back at my early experiment with macrobiotics, it amazes me that most of these five keys to lower cortisol were accomplished through that diet. Today I know much more about the mechanisms of food-triggered cortisol response, and have helped many of my patients regain adaptation through diet.

As many of my patients have proven, what is on the dinner plate has as much an influence on adaptation and aging well as anything else that a person can control. Cortisol production increases when there is inflammation from the wrong fats in the diet, hypoglycemia in response to eating high-glycemic-index foods, food-allergy reactions, increased abdominal girth and insulin resistance, and exposure to toxins. If you think these triggers are not common in the typical American diet, you are wrong. Obesity rates are now approaching 50 percent of all Americans (including children), and food allergies and food intolerance affect nearly that many. Inflammation is the result of eating the wrong fats – omega-6 (packaged and processed foods, red meat, eggs, and whole-fat dairy) instead of omega-3 (cold-water fish, walnuts, and almonds) – as well as the result of exposure to pollutants in the food chain. 

If you’d like to learn more about managing cortisol levels with your diet (or The Adaptation Diet in general), please call us and set up an appointment. Whether you’re interested in living a healthier lifestyle or you’re trying to overcome a chronic condition, we can help you get to your goals.